Excruciating, farfetched sentimental melodrama, closer to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird than to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, about a child’s traumatic response to his father’s death in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The funeral, where an empty coffin is buried because his father’s body was never recovered, encapsulates how little sense the whole event of his irrevocable loss strikes Oskar Schell. A year later, the precocious 9-year-old schoolboy begins an odyssey to find the lock opened by a key that he has found in a blue vase he discovered in his father’s closet. Oskar is convinced that his father has left him a final message, and he is determined to learn what it is to regain their spiritual connection. Only then, he feels, “The Worst Day” will be redeemed.
Stephen Daldrey directed from a stupid script that Eric Roth based on Safran Foer’s novel, where, I understand, Oskar is a gentle innocent. In the film, Oskar is a nasty know-it-all who runs roughshod over everyone else’s feelings, including those of his mother. Thomas Horn, who plays Oskar (Oskar, to emphasize the odyssey that gives shape to his ordeal, his instrumental security blanket a tambourine rather than a tin drum), is insipid, but he sufficiently resembles Jamie Bell, Daldrey’s Billy Eliot (2001), that we keep hoping for superlative acting. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock are no better as the idealized parents, although Max von Sydow and Zoe Caldwell do much better as Oskar’s paternal grandparents, and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright—remember Robert Altman’s Streamers (1983)?—are wonderful as a couple whom Oskar meets along the way of his search, right at the moment that their marriage ends amidst ambiguous commotion. Wright convinces as an anomaly: a humane businessman. Von Sydow was Oscar-nominated; Wright should also have been nominated.
But, apart from these fine performances, this is a terrible movie—a heartless tearjerker that exploits the heartache of countless real people.